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Pundits have portrayed Obama as a new FDR, but the times and circumstances are very different

  • U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivers his first radio "Fireside Chat" in Washington in March, 1933. (AP Photo)

In his victory speech on Nov. 4, Barack Obama talked about people putting "their hands on the arc of history" and bending it "once more towards the hope of a better day." Obama and his fellow Democrats now have that arc in their grasp. But where they are going to bend it is still being debated.

Many liberals would like to turn it towards a "new New Deal."

Washington is currently buzzing with talk of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Members of Obama's inner circle are reading up on FDR's first 100 days.

No political conversation is complete without a knowing reference to the squire of Hyde Park. Both Time (on the cover) and the New Yorker (on an inside page) feature pictures of Obama as FDR, smoking a cigarette, driving an open-top car and looking very much as though he has nothing to fear but fear itself.

Such Roosevelt-mania is hardly surprising. America is in the grip of the biggest housecleaning since the Depression -- a housecleaning that has already closed investment banks and shrunk pension portfolios, and is now rippling through the real economy.

The political playing field has also tilted leftward. Obama received a higher proportion of the popular vote than all but one Democratic presidential nominee since FDR (though Republicans have often done better). The Democrats will have bigger majorities in both the House and Senate than the Republicans in their glory days of 1994-2006.

As for the Republicans, Eric Cantor, a member of the Republican leadership in the House, laments that they are no longer "relevant" to the average Joe.

Obama and his allies should nevertheless beware of pushing the FDR comparison too far. Many on the left believe that they have a mandate not just for a stimulus package but for a wholesale reinvention of government.

They see the dawn of a new era of activism in which the government re-regulates business as well as finance, fixes health care, promotes "green growth," restores equality of opportunity and generally brings order to the chaotic capitalist system.

Ronald Reagan created a period of Republican dominance by bringing "order" in the cultural sphere after the liberal excesses of the 1960s and 1970s, argues Peter Beinart in Time; Obama has a chance to create a period of Democratic dominance by doing the same in the economic sphere.


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